giant stack of papers, viewed close-up from the side
15
Jul
2013

Help Wanted: Supporting Graduate Student Writers

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Reviewed by Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris
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stack” by hobvias sudoneighm; CC BY 2.0

On my first day of work, my supervisor and the assistant director walked me over to what would be my office for the next two years: it was a hidden office, an office that could easily be mistaken for something else. It had no windows, and later a librarian would confide that a long time ago my office had been used for storage. However, I later came to appreciate the “coziness” of my office: students would come and go, sometimes unseen to the others in my office. It seemed to be the perfect place for the Graduate Writing Specialist (GWS), considering the work I did.

As the GWS, I was a part of my school’s Writing Center, which provided writing consultants for undergraduate and graduate students across all disciplines. But I was more than just a writing consultant. I was one of three staff members in the office, and it was my job to do research, organize writing events, put together programming, and reach out to faculty and other offices on campus to tell them about how we could help their students. In a nutshell, I concerned myself with the struggles and the concerns of graduate student writers.

My heart particularly went out to students working with their dissertations and having trouble meeting the milestones. Their struggles reflected back to me my own struggles as I finished my dissertation. Like I mentioned in a blog post titled “Finding My Niche,” writing my dissertation had been a tough endeavor. I had excruciating deadlines looming over my head, and I recognized I had lost confidence in myself as a thinker and a writer. I finished my dissertation away from my home campus, and my advisor and mentor, and this posed its own challenges. Helping the PhD candidates at my university succeed wasn’t just part of my job: it was a true commitment to higher education.

At the graduate level, students are asked to become scholars. Writing is an essential part of that scholarship, but often students receive no formal instruction in the kind of writing that they are expected to do at that level. For this reason, writing support for graduate students is not just important: it is vital to their success.

Few universities actually have an introduction to writing at the graduate level, if they have any kind of institutional writing support at all. More often than not, the students are left to figure out writing on their own. Mike Rose and Karen McClaferty observe that “there is little professional discussion of what we can do to help our students write more effectively”. They argue that, despite the exasperation that faculty feel about the poor quality of graduate student writing, there is a fear of providing “remedial intervention” either in the form of a single course, or as a component of graduate seminars more generally. Rose and McClaferty do provide an outline of a successful approach to the teaching of graduate writing, but conclude by saying that it may be the very pace of graduate study that works against the student. Graduate writers are expected to perform almost spontaneously as professionals in their fields, and consequently are susceptible to failure as professionals, before they truly join their fields.

Graduate student struggles with writing, in my experience, stem from not understanding genre, not grasping the expectations, or not knowing their own writing process. Although I am far from an expert in all kinds of writing graduate students across disciplines at a research-intensive university will encounter, I knew where to go to find examples of writing. Sometimes I encouraged the students to look for examples themselves or to think back to an article they had read that they liked. Professors often assume that students know the form of academic writing while in class they focus on content; but I found that students often had no clue what a particular assignment was supposed to look like; even worse, they had no clue what their professors expected of their writing. I’m sure some will say that graduate students need to learn the hard way — after all, that’s what many professionals did before them — but I’m not sure that harder lessons necessarily mean that students will learn better.

So, who will teach the students about how to write at the graduate level? Professors balance many expectations: teaching, professional development, research, service, advising. Adding writing support to that list (especially considering that many professors are not trained to teach writing) is unfair.

I believe university writing centers can help graduate students develop writing expertise as well as support graduate faculty in advising students on their writing. It must start with having resources specifically for graduate student writers. Helen Snively, Traci Freeman, and Cheryl Prentice in “Writing Centers for Graduate Students” (2006) assert that graduate writing centers “offer students the support of peers or professionals, without the responsibility of providing feedback to others, and they allow students to make appointments at times that suit their schedules … they often provide the readily available, intensive, and long-term writing support in ways that advisors often cannot” (155). Even though they talk about a writing center that specifically caters to graduate students, in Snively, Freeman, and Prentice’s view, the writing center becomes a safe academic space outside of one’s department (where asking for help can be misinterpreted and/or feel shameful). The support of the writing center can be at the level of craft — in order to help students understand the characteristics of genres, while the writer retains ownership of the content.

However, some writing centers are not ready for this population of student writers. Researchers like John Thomas Farrell (“Some of the Challenges to Writing Centers Posed by Graduate Students”) and Rebecca Day Babcock and Terese Thonus (Researching the Writing Center: Towards an Evidence-Based Practice) have pointed out the dearth of writing center research on graduate students as a separate category of writers, even though their writing does take place in a different context and with different expectations than that of undergraduate students. In order to offer support for this underrepresented and under-researched population of writers, I advocate for having a writing specialist on staff, someone whose sole purview is helping out graduate student writers across campus and who can learn about the challenges students face in different genres and different disciplines.

Graduate schools need to have graduate writing specialists who can work with students as well as faculty, and create change not just from within an office but inside the classroom as well. Writing support for graduate students is not the concern of just one office on campus; it should be a concern for all departments, especially when it comes to graduation rates. Having even one point person who focuses on helping graduate students become better writers can make a real start at coordinating efforts across departments. Moreover, the GWS can be an advocate for graduate student writers when it comes to changes in the graduate curriculum or in outlining requirements to graduation.

We academics must offer sound writing resources to the graduate students who continue to flock to universities across the world, especially considering the current publish-or-perish culture. How can we expect graduate students to succeed inside and outside of the university if they have little idea how to tackle the writing aspect of their professional careers?

My small office on the top floor of the library became a shelter for a population of students who needed my help during those two years. Here students came and went, sometimes unseen to the bustling writing department. During my last weeks there, I had many students come by that same office to tell me how much they valued the support I provided to them. As I packed up my things, I considered what a huge loss it is that universities so often leave the writing training of their most advanced students to chance.


The author wishes to thank Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, whose attention to detail and comments helped her immensely while thinking through this piece.

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1 Response

  1. I just came across this today, Liana, and found it very useful. When you initially wrote it, I was at the final stages of my dissertation. I still remember how little support I got on my writing, and how difficult it was to grow into myself as a writer. You’re right: most academics are not trained to teach writing. I wonder, though, how well-trained writing-support faculty are in the discourses of particular disciplines? This is an issue I have always struggled with, and assume that people can co-teach and specialize in writing in particula disciplines or broad areas like sciences vs humanities vs social science?

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